Wednesday 30 October 2013

Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear

It is easy to pick up a Maisie Dobbs novel, because you can be assured it will be a pleasant, diverting read, which will take you to a new aspect of between the wars Britain, with plenty of mystery, murder and drama thrown in. Even if Miss Dobbs could do with a good shaking at times. It must be all that yoga and her carefully developed sensitivity towards what lies beneath the surface of people. This is what makes her such a clever investigator, I know, but it seems to come at the expense of a sense of humour.
    Anyway, enough said. I still managed to romp through this book so it obviously held my interest.  In Among the Mad, Maisie and Billy are on their way to meet a client, when Maisie's attention is caught by a war veteran sitting on the pavement who has obviously fallen on hard times. Sensing a desperation in his manner, she is just turning to talk to him, when he blows himself up with a grenade. Fortunately, all she receives is a bump on the head, for soon she is immersed in the case.
    Letters have been received by the government referring to the death as a warning that it must take more care of ex-soldiers who have no jobs or anyone to care for them - or else! Maisie's name is mentioned, and Special Branch are taking an interest, under charismatic Scotsman, Chief Superintendent MacFarlane.  Maisie is called in to assist, not only as a witness, but to give psychological insight. D I Stratton is part of the team as well - he's appeared in previous books, and if you remember he has long carried something of a torch for Maisie.
    Examining the letters, Maisie suspects a returned serviceman who has suffered trauma and might well be an ex-patient of a mental institution. She uses her old nursing contacts to visit a psychologist in one such asylum, who offers a pessimistic view of what life can be like for those released from their care with no home to go to.
    When several dogs fall victim to a poison gas attack at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, it appears the letter writer has chemical expertise as well. Maisie's investigations take her to a place called Mulberry in Berkshire where some 'hush-hush' type experiments involving poison gas are conducted. It seems the Germans weren't the only ones doing this. MI5 are on the spot and there is an interesting power struggle between MacFarlane and a creepy MI5 operative named Urquhart.
    Meanwhile Billy's wife Doreen has fallen into a terrible depression over the death of her daughter from diphtheria. She needs medical help, but ends up receiving some draconian treatments at an asylum. And Maisie's socialite friend Priscilla is frequently teary-eyed and turning to drink because her dear little boys remind her too much of her brothers lost in the trenches.
    We are truly among the mad in this story, and Winspear does well at showing just how easy it is to reach that tipping point between sanity and mental illness. If this sounds a bit grim, she cleverly builds the pace with plenty of dashing about in police cars, and the actions of the Special Branch team. There is a desperation in their work, for a madman capable of using gas could kill thousands of revellers celebrating New Year's Eve and the hours are rushing by.
    There's also a flicker of interest between Maisie and Stratton, and Maisie discovers that she's finally over long lost love, Simon. But whether anything else will develop with Stratton will have to wait for another Maisie Dobbs adventure.
    All in all, this is a fairly satisfying mystery, although there are a few problems in the plotting that I wondered about. The reason for Maisie being mentioned in the first letter seemed feeble; and why weren't more leads followed up to discover the connection between the veteran with the grenade and the letter writer? But these minor quibbles don't really detract from what is a very engaging story, and I am sure I shall read more in the series, because now and then Maisie Dobbs is just the ticket.

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